“As I was making “refrigerator soup” out of leftovers the other day, the image of my Granny Nola McGuire telling me to go down in the basement and get some soup mixture flashed across my mind.
After I brought the jar upstairs, she would pour it into a pot, add dibs and dabs of things left over in the refrigerator – pintos, green beans, stew meat – whatever she had left from the week’s meals – put in some potatoes and cook it until the potatoes were done. Then she’d make cornbread, and we would have supper.
I always liked to help make the soup mixture at the end of the summer. Granny would send me out – she sent me a lot – to get whatever was left in the garden to add to the pile of sad looking tomatoes on the porch. I would mostly find several ears of corn that had a few tender grains on them, some okra, some onions, a handful of green beans, and maybe a pepper or two.
To make the soup mix, we would fix the tomatoes just like we were planning to can them, cut the corn off the ears, and chop the onions and whatever else I’d found. When we had it all in the pot, we would cook it until everything was tender, and then pour it into hot jars and process it according to Granny’s canning bible, the Ball Blue Book.
While I was making my own “refrigerator soup” with the help of one of my jars of soup mixture, I remembered what a good teacher Granny was.
She believed in “hands-on” teaching.
I can remember as a child when people would come up to Granny and ask if she remembered them. It would turn out that she had taught them some grade in some one-room school. They would say “ I remember you tanning my hide, but you were the best teacher I ever had.”
She was the first girl and second in birth order among nine children. Her father died young, and she helped her mother raise the younger ones. Granny rode the train to Raleigh when she was 16 and took a test to get her teaching certificate, even though most everyone thought she was too young to be a teacher. She taught for several years around Swain County and would ride an old horse to her first jobs in one-room schools. She told a story about having some big old boys in the school up above the old ice plant. She said, “Why that big ol’ boy told me he wasn’t going to learn nothing.” She got a hold of his ear and tanned his hide. After than, he learned whatever “Miss Nola” told him to.
Granny was well into her 20s when she went to teach in the school on Hazel Creek in Proctor, a settlement that had grown up around the Ritter Lumber Co. There was a large school there that included local kids as well the children of those working on the logging operations and in the lumber yards. Granny rode the train to Topton and from there she went by wagon to Proctor. She stayed in a boarding house, sharing a room with two other young women who were also teachers. She remembered those days well and described them to me as if they were some of the best of times she ever had.
It was while she was teaching there that she met a flooring inspector, Jennings Bryan McGuire. From what people tell me, my grandfather was a good-looking man and loved to sing, play the banjo and have a good time. Granny was smitten and married him, which meant she lost her job as a teacher; women couldn’t teach after they got married in those days.
When the logging operations started closing down and times got hard, Grandpa went west to California to find work. He was killed in an automobile accident while he was out there, and Granny had to go back to teaching. One of her jobs was with the extension agency or some similar Depression-era program. She went around the community and taught people how to use the commodity food that poor people were given by the government. She would demonstrate how to make soup and how to use the various foods that came in the boxes that often contained items that were unfamiliar to Appalachian farmers. She had to teach people that rice was meant to be a substitute for potatoes after she found that they were trying to eat it cooked with sugar and milk like cereal. (Actually, Daddy ate it like that and so did I – we had it hot with sugar butter and milk; I may have to do that again.)
She had to do a lot of improvising, because you never knew what was going to come in those boxes.
One time she went to do a demonstration and was met by some families who were puzzled over their latest food arrival. They had received grapefruit, and lots of it. Granny said they had boiled, baked and tried to fry them but still hadn’t found them fit to eat. Though she tried to convince the people to eat them raw or squeeze them for juice, those folks still didn’t like the strange fruits.
Rather than let them be wasted, Granny bought up all the grapefruit she could and took them home to her family, who didn’t qualify for the government food benefit. She was raising two daughters and also had three of her younger siblings and her mother in the house, and she couldn’t stand the thought that all that vitamin-packed citrus might be wasted.
Granny always seemed to feel bad about buying those grapefruits from those poor people, but she said she knew they would have thrown them out if she hadn’t.
After my soup was hot and ready to eat, I was still thinking of all the things that Granny taught me.
“Pretty is as pretty does,” and “Keep a cheerful countenance,” are two of the old sayings she’d quote that I’ve always tried to follow, and I can still hear her saying “Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public places.”
And given that I just spent one of the prettiest afternoons we’ve had this winter messing with cleaning the refrigerator and eating the gleanings, I guess the Granny saying I took the most to heart is “Waste not, want not.”